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Diagnosed with HIV 20 Years Ago at Howard Brown, He Now Returns to Run It

By Adeshina Emmanuel | February 27, 2014 9:33am | Updated on February 27, 2014 11:07am
 David Ernesto Munar stands in his Downtown office at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. In April, he will take over as president of Howard Brown, in Uptown.
David Ernesto Munar stands in his Downtown office at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. In April, he will take over as president of Howard Brown, in Uptown.
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DNAinfo/Adeshina Emmanuel

UPTOWN — In 1994, David Ernesto Munar, then 24, was sure he wouldn't live past the age of 35 after testing positive for HIV at a Howard Brown Health Center clinic.

A lot has happened since his HIV diagnosis: the avid runner said he has run more than a dozen marathons, overseen national campaigns about HIV, and risen through the ranks at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

In April, Munar, of Lincoln Square, will return to Howard Brown —this time to run the show there as its president and CEO at age 44.

"It's a fascinating turn of events," said Munar, who will take the reins from Interim President Karma Israelsen. "To be in position now where I've survived 20 years of HIV and will now be at the helm of this organization is profound for me."

The social service agency is one of the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations in the country, providing more than 16,000 people a year with health services and other community resources.

He's eager to get to work at Howard Brown, 4025 N. Sheridan Road, where he said "there will be other 24-year-olds diagnosed who will be just as scared as I was."

By 1995 — a year after Munar was diagnosed with HIV — 501,310 people had been diagnosed with AIDS, the final stage of HIV infection, and 62 percent had died since the condition was discovered in the early 1980s, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The year 1995 was the height of AIDS-related deaths in the country, with about 50,000 people dying from the illness that year.

"The epidemic was spinning out of control," Munar said, adding that medications existed for treating HIV, which weakens the immune system, but many were experimental and few were very effective.

He was 24 and, he said, "did not expect to live beyond age 35."

"Pessimism was warranted," Munar said. "The average lifespan of a person with HIV was less than 10 years depending on how advanced their HIV was."

Munar, who is of Colombian descent and grew up in Albuquerque, N.M., came to Chicago in 1987 to attend Northwestern University, in north suburban Evanston. He graduated in 1991 with a degree in Hispanic Studies and was a campus organizer around LGBT issues.

Munar went to work for the AIDS Foundation the summer after graduation as an office assistant, and by 24 was working in case management, referring people with HIV and AIDS to crucial resources.

With his diagnosis came "a deep depression that lasted 10 years," said Munar, who remembers not discussing his illness with friends, "carrying on like nothing was happening," and wrapping himself in an emotional cocoon.

To cope, he focused on nurturing relationships with close friends and family, and poured himself into his work — like a young man convinced he only had a decade left on earth.

"I felt urgency to compact all my dreams and aspirations into this period of time," Munar said, calling himself a "very high-functioning depressive."

In 23 years at the AIDS Foundation, Munar has served as policy director, vice president of policy and community, senior vice president and, since 2011, president and CEO, managing a $24 million portfolio of programs aimed at care, prevention and policy surrounding HIV and AIDS.

He also helped launch the Coalition for a National AIDS Strategy, a precursor to the National HIV/AIDS Strategy that President Barack Obama unveiled in 2010.

Karen Fishman is the former president of the AIDS Foundation, and hired Munar back in 1991.

"He impressed me because he was smart, because he really wanted to learn and was willing to do whatever was needed," she said. "I have watched his career develop since then with awe and admiration."

When he was named to lead Howard Brown — which was started in the mid-1970s and named for a former New York city public health commissioner — Munar was described by the organization as "a Latino gay man living with HIV [who] knows firsthand the fear of and isolation of an HIV diagnosis and the service gaps that persist in the communities of color and for medically underserved populations."

Munar said he was blessed with a low viral load for the first five or so years of his diagnosis, but in 2001 his doctor suggested he start treatment. He said he wasn't emotionally ready for daily treatments — a daily reminder of what he assumed was his fast-approaching demise.

So he delayed treatment until 2004. By that time he was often lethargic, was constantly fatigued and getting colds and respiratory infections on a monthly basis, Munar said.

"Once I got on treatment and started to feel better, I also started to feel that there was hope for myself, for survival," he said. "That's when I began to come out of the cocoon and talk about it publicly."

At Howard Brown, Munar said his biggest task is maximizing the benefits of the Affordable Care Act for the LGBT community.

Also on his plate this year is deciding the long-term future of the Broadway Youth Center, a Howard Brown program focused on serving homeless youth, many from the LGBT community.

Some neighbors have railed against the BYC, which operates out of a Lakeview church, citing loitering, loudness and jaywalking, as well as concerns about crime that supporters of the center have countered is overblown.

Munar said, "We need to listen to the concerns of the neighbors, and they need to listen to us and consider the importance of Howard Brown and the Broadway Youth Center's mission."

And the young people who use the center, as well as staff there and decision makers at Howard Brown "need to figure out whether that's an optimal long-term location," he said.